Nick Lutsko is more than just the sweaty man singing in your Twitter timeline [podcast + transcript]
I'm a big fan of Nick's work, and I was absolutely delighted to have him on my weekly podcast.
My guest on this week’s podcast is singer-songwriter and [checks notes] king of Halloween Nick Lutsko. I’m really excited for this episode, and I highly recommend checking out the audio version if you can, as there are a few song clips in there (as well as a live/acoustic version of one of Nick’s songs at the very end).
As always, if you enjoy the podcast and/or the newsletter, please consider subscribing and sharing my work on social media. There are free and paid subscriptions available. The Present Age is a reader-supported newsletter, and I appreciate your support!
Parker Molloy: Nick Lutsko! Thank you for joining me today. I appreciate it.
Nick Lutsko: Yeah, thanks for having me.
So you just released the third installment of your Spirit Halloween trilogy, I guess.
So how'd that come into existence for people who are familiar with the first two, but not the third?
So, I did the first one mid-September of last year, unsolicited. This is the Spark Notes version. And the whole, I guess, kind of joke about that song was it's a theme for Spirit Halloween, but really it was more just a ploy for them to pay me for writing. The song was about my payment for the theme.
So, they reach out and they actually did pay me some money and they were really cool about it. And then they got in touch, said they wanted to do another one. So then after the unsolicited first entry, I did a sequel that they paid for. I guess technically they own it. And then they reached out early this year and made it pretty clear they wanted to do something again this year and they wanted to up the stakes. I think the language they used was, "How do we top last year?"
And my response initially was like, "If we're going to top last year, I think we need to get a significantly bigger crew." And when I say significantly bigger, that's more than me and my little brother who shot it. The first one was just me on my cell phone. The second one was me and my little brother in my house. And then for this one, I was proposing like, let's get a crew and a production team that can actually work on this thing and make it legit and cinematic and all that.
And their response was sort of, "We don't want to lose the weird guy in his basement vibe." Which is fair. It might have also been a, "We don't want to spend way more money on this." So it just kind of forced me to get creative. At that point, I think I'd already kind of had the idea that I wanted to set the song as like, "We're coming out of the apocalypse," and like, "Things will return to normalcy," or not even that, "It'll be a utopia because Spirit Halloween is back."
And that was kind of the gist of what I was pitching to them. And I really didn't know how I was going to be able to shoot an apocalyptic wasteland in my basement, or I really dug myself into a hole because I wrote the song and I was happy with the song and then I had no idea how to shoot it. And I reached out to Brielle Garcia, who has been a follower of mine on Twitter.
And it's kind of funny because she pulled my own card of me making stuff for Spirit Halloween unsolicited and she started doing unsolicited Snapchat filters for this dumb, fake gremlins movie that I made. And so I knew that she was way more technically savvy than I am. So I reached out to her and said, "Could you help me out with some of these visuals?" And I had no clue what I was getting myself into because she was able to do things that I could have never done in a million years.
So, yeah, yeah.
How long did that take you guys to film and because it definitely seems like a larger production than anything else you've put out.
For sure. Yeah. Well, I shot it all in my garage. My wife shot me in my garage as our baby was like chilling in a playpen in the corner. It felt very silly because I'm supposed to be interacting with this apocalyptic world, but I'm actually in my garage.
And I have no idea if she's going to be able to do the things she says she's going to do because usually that stuff's done on a green screen.
But yeah, I think it was all done in about a month. I shot the footage in my garage. I sent it to her and yeah, it was insane, the amount of work that she did and how quickly she did it.
The way she explained it to me is, I think she uses video game engines maybe.
Technology has just really advanced to where people are capable of doing things out of their bedrooms. It would've cost millions of dollars and tons of time, just a few short years ago. And I guess a lot of people haven't even figured out how to do some of these things and she's just on the cutting edge and yeah, it's pretty crazy that it was only her and I working on it and opposite sides of the country. She's in Seattle, I believe. And I'm in Chattanooga, Tennessee. So it was a cool project.
Yeah, definitely. And I think that, because I was going to say, the first time I heard your music was all the Super Deluxe stuff that you did.
I guess, one of, sort of the benefits of Super Deluxe kind of disappearing or going away or whatever is the fact that then you kind of like, you were not just hidden behind the sort of the curtain there.
It was like, "Oh, hey, this is the dude who did the emo Trump songs or the Alex Jones thing."
Because that was the thing. And I think it, that stuff resonated with me because it's like, so I'm 35, so the early-mid 2000s were high school. And at the time I was really into bands like Taking Back Sunday and Thrice and Thursday and all that. And there was this sort of holy shit moment for me, where it clicked for me that Trump's tweets and sort of self-pitying statements were about being unfairly attacked and whatnot really read the type of the bands that were trying to make music like that, not them but the weird knockoff where it's like, "Oh man, you're trying too hard." You know?
And from that moment on, anytime I'd see something stupid he said, I'd be like, "Oh man, this is like some kid with Hawthorne Heights lyrics as their AOL instant messenger way thing." You know? So I'm glad that that made it into my timeline because then that sent me down a bit of a rabbit hole where-
Then I was checking out your other music that is not comedy and-
... so I was kind of, can you kind of tell me what are some of the differences between Nick Lutsko serious singer-songwriter and Nick Lutsko, weird guy in his basement singing about Spirit Halloween?
Yeah. Yeah. It's a great question that I feel like the lines become a little more blurry all the time. Especially as we're planning live shows and it's like it's a smaller set of people, but there are definitely people who were into my stuff before I started doing these sweaty frantic songs on Twitter. And there's a subset of people who are going to come to the show expecting to hear that. And there's going to be people who are coming essentially only expecting a comedy show. And then there's a lot of people who've reached out a bit similar to you that said, "I really enjoyed your comedy stuff and I dove deeper into your other albums and I really enjoy that as well." So it's like trying to figure out how to frame both of these things and I wish I had a better answer. I think once we start playing shows, I'll get a better feel for how those two worlds can kind of coexist.
I did this Vulture article. They did the premier of the Spirit 3 song and I said something like, "The shiny sheen of sweat on my face is like my Spiderman suit to my Peter Parker." And it's obviously just a dumb joke, but it's interesting in that, like even though I've done albums that are not comedic whatsoever. And even this goes for my Super Deluxe stuff as well, I think it all kind of comes from the same place. And it always comes from my frustrations with the absurdity of the world. And especially the last album I did Swords before I started doing these Songs on the Computer. All of those songs were just a direct, almost involuntary response to the Trump administration and the Trump campaign.
And it was all written 2015 to 2019. And the whole album just kind of has a sense of like, "Am I the only person that is seeing what is happening? And is this a weird fever dream nightmare, or is this reality?" And I finished doing that album and I really was anxious to create something that was fun and happy. And I just wanted to do a 180. It's like, "Okay, I've spent the last few years just really hyper-focusing on all these things that just really distressed me and bummed me out." And it's like, I want to write some fun music. And then 2020 happened, we went into a global pandemic and George Floyd happened. And it was just all, it was like all these gut punches over and over.
And it became abundantly clear that I wasn't capable of sitting down and writing fun, happy, quirky music. And the one song I did that was non-comedic was called Spineless. And it was just even darker and than all the stuff from Swords. And it's funny because it wasn't until I retroactively looked back and realized that through the Songs on the Computer project, I was able to do what I wanted to do, but it's not like I sat down and I'm like, "I'm going to take all these dark, angry feelings and just do the most absurd, silly version of these things." It was just something that I just instinctively started doing, and I never really analyzed too much whatever I'm doing in the moment, it's usually other people telling me what they like about it.
And then I'm like, "Oh yeah, that's what I did there." There's not a lot of, I don't know, analyzation happening as I'm... Because I moved so quickly when I do them, which initially just started out of necessity between juggling multiple jobs, it would be like, "Okay, I have a free day this week so I know I need to put something out on this day." And yeah, that essentially became like waking up, seeing what was driving me crazy in that moment or what was going on in the news of that day and writing a song as quickly as I could, recording it as quickly as I could, shooting a video as quickly as I could, and trying to get a video out that evening. So that was sort of how this whole thing started and it's something that I've tried to keep in the spirit of the project as I've moved forward because the Swords album was like, I would spend months and some of them even years on rewriting lyrics and re-tracking different instrumentals and mixing things differently. And I'm really happy with how that album came out but I do think there's been a real benefit to realizing that I can kind of go with my first instinct and still elicit a response from people.
Yeah, definitely. The interesting thing about like, for instance, because you've made some really cool videos for some of the, I hate to say serious songs, but the non-comedies because-
Yeah, that's kind of-
But not necessarily serious-
... but it's just like-
It's not making a joke, you know?
For sure. Yeah.
But the music video for the song, I think it's Sometimes where it's like, it's just this gigantic production of, it's like a concert and you have and your band is wearing all sorts of costumes.
It's an experience in itself. And it's like, I'd love to see that live. There's a band here in Chicago. Oh God… Ah! Mucca Pazza, that's their name.
They're a marching band.
They're a marching band that plays regular concerts.
And it's just weird and over the top.
And that music video reminds me of their live shows, which were always so fun and everything like that. So I'm a fan.
Awesome. Yeah. Thank you.
Yeah. It's cool. It's kind of funny because yeah, we did that album Swords and we had the big album release party in Chattanooga in 2019, October of 2019. That's where we shot all of that video for some time. That basically was just like a highlight from the album release party, like a highlight reel. And the plan was to get that video, get our EPK, and then 2020 really try to get a booking agent and try to tour and obviously, 2020 happened and then none of that happened.
And then Songs on the Computers stuff happened and now it's in this weird place of like, as you mentioned my band before, when they were called the Gimmix and it started as like... I feel like anytime I try to explain one thing, I have to explain 10 other things. Basically, when I first started making albums under my name, I didn't have a band but I did have these hand puppets. So I used the hand puppets as the backing band for my music video Predator. And then when I finally did get a band, it was like, "Hey, what if we tried to recreate that vibe of having a puppet band?"
So then we started making puppet costumes for the bandmates and those kind of just evolved into creatures over time. But anyway, when we started talking about doing Songs on the Computer live, I've kind of built this world and this mythology, and it was like having my band in these weird puppet costumes on top of all the Songs on the Computer stuff kind of felt like wearing a hat on top of a hat. So we're kind of resetting and approaching the shows from a totally different place, which is just cosmically hilarious, because we spent years and years and years trying to build to this place where we were ready to go off into the world and see what we could do with it. And then all of it just kind of got knocked down on and now we're kind of starting this new thing. So-
Yeah. Well, I mean that's kind of the general idea behind this newsletter that, because in June I quit my job and I was like, "I'm going to go start doing a newsletter." And that was, I don't know if that'll be a good decision in the long run we'll see. And then decided, "Oh, I should turn this into a podcast because..." One of the things I've been thinking a lot about has just been the way that people had to adapt because of the pandemic and everything that changed, that all their plans had to shift. And the first interview I did for my newsletter, was with Will Butler from the band Arcade Fire.
And he was telling me about how he had all these plans because he was releasing a solo album in 2020 and so he was planning on touring in swing states right before the election. It was a whole idea for him and then he just couldn't do any of it because COVID and other bands have tried to figure out different ways to communicate with their audiences or approach things from a different sort of direction and that's why I'm just really interested in just how people are communicating with each other. I mean, because as it is, I mean the music industry's kind of chaos as it is. I mean, I went to school for, well at first I went to school music performance, classical and jazz guitar.
But that lasted a semester before I switched to commercial music, but then I switched to music business.
So the business side, talent management, and then after college, I was like, "Okay, cool. Now to get into the music industry." It was like 2009 and suddenly it's like, "Oh, everything is just streaming now and everything has changed."
I had a teacher who was convinced that the future of the music industry was ring tones and I'm just like, "I don't know, man. I really, really do not know."
Right. That's hilarious. Where did you go to school?
So at first, I went to Millikin University in Decatur, Illinois. Which is just kind of a small school with a decent acting program, which has nothing to do with music. And then I dropped out and then went to Columbia College here in Chicago and finished my degree, so it was interesting. And I still like making weird little songs and I've got Logic Pro and a bunch of weird plugins that do all sorts of crazy things.
It's like that stuff is a fun hobby for me. But the more I think about it, the more I'm like, "Oh man, I should have gotten a degree in something, anything else."
Oh my gosh. Well, it's really funny because just by... I have a degree in commercial songwriting from Middle Tennessee State University and it's really funny because a lot of people, I just see people in the comments, and this is really kind, I'm not saying that this is true, but people will be like, "Man, you can tell that this guy went to school for songwriting." And it's like, I learned nothing. And not to knock the school that much, it was the first year of the program when I went there and my major was recording industry and they had three emphases, music business, which it sounds like you ended up getting yours in.
And then audio fundamentals, which is engineering and producing and all that. And then commercial songwriting. Commercial songwriting was a new one and it just had songwriting in the name so I'm like, "Oh cool. I want to write songs, I'll do that." But it really was a very underdeveloped program at the time and it basically was how to make it as a songwriter in Nashville.
So how to write for pop country, which I had no interest in. And basically what they taught was like, "Listen to the radio, find what's hot and repeat. And repeat enough without getting sued."
And they teach you how not to get sued and how to still take those. It seemed like they just like juiced all the creativity out of songwriting and it really made me very bitter. And I really, I had to take a lot of secondary classes in music, business and audio fundamentals. And I gained a ton more from those than I did from the songwriting aspect and I wish I would've explored more of those things because I think that those, the songwriting part always kind of came naturally to me.
But I do think just learning how to use social media as a way to connect with your fans was huge. And the few classes I took on Pro Tools opened a lot of doors for... I do everything in my home studio. So I knock my degree a little bit just because it's not something that I can hold up this piece of paper and be like, "Hey, hire me for my songwriting degree."
It's like, "No, people want to hear your songs and they'll judge whether they should hire you based on the work you've done." It's a whole lot of complaining for nothing because things worked out pretty well. I'm pretty happy where I'm at, but I don't know how much of it attributes to my education.
Yeah. Well, I mean, same.
It's like all things considered, I think I'm okay. But in hindsight, it's like, "Man, maybe I should have taken more writing classes because that's what I'm going to end up doing and..." Here I am like, I don't know, does a comma belong there?
My writing mistakes are just really stupid, fundamental things that I should have learned in eighth grade.
But yeah, with guitar performance, the first major I had, it was like, "Cool, all right. What do I do with this when I graduate?" It's like, "You can work on a cruise ship. That's a job." And I'm like, "Wait, wait, no, no, no. That?"
That's funny. I actually explored that for a minute. And I was like, I looked up what you needed to be able to do that. And they were like, "You need to be able to play 500 songs." And I was like trying to count all the songs I knew and it's like, "Damn!"
In another world, I could have been sweating on a cruise ship somewhere singing my heart out day after day.
Yeah. My brother has a degree in musical theater and he had a job for a while on a Disney cruise ship where he played Peter Pan and Aladdin and all of that. It sounds cool but then he's like, “Yeah, and then they put us in these like tiny rooms with a bunch of us together. I was like, "Oh good. So it's like Titanic." You're in like the boiler room. No windows. Oh, great. Sweet.
Yeah. The more you think about it, the less fun it seems.
Yeah. I'm like, "Wait, this is the best-case scenario for this degree? I don't think so." So, I'd rather just not.
My first pivot away from doing music business stuff to doing more writing stuff was an internship at Pitchfork, which was kind of hilarious because it was transcribing interviews with bands that sometimes just… they were bad interviews.
One thing wanted to ask you about is just the thing that sort of holds, I think Songs on the Computer altogether is just the lore of it all that kind of all connects. You have your cast of characters that all, they all kind of work together. Where did some of this stuff come from? So it's like, you're like grandma, Mel, Dan Bongino, Jeff Bezos, man in the stairs, you know?
Yeah. It's funny. I was thinking about this the other day and I think the RNC song, it was kind of the big bang of all of this. It's the first mention of grandma and her basement and man in the stairs. And I think back to writing that song, and it was one of the first times, I remember very specifically, I had one day to make it, I started that morning, I posted it that night and it was like, okay, the RNC is starting today, I got to do something. I remember, my studio's here in my basement and behind this wall is an unfinished nightmare world of a basement and it has a toilet with the messed up American flag hanging behind it. It has the creepy stairs. I remember thinking like, "Here's what I have to work with. Okay. I can work in that." You know what I mean?
It's like almost using my surroundings as characters in this song. And as far as working Dan Bongino in, it could have been anybody, but his name just was the funniest to sing.
And it was really funny too because I remember my buddy and bandmate, John, who, I kind of bounce all my ideas off of, I pitched him the idea and he was like, "I have no idea who Dan Bongino is." And I was like, "I think the only reason I know who he is because Vic Berger was fighting with him at some point. And maybe a lot of people won't know who he is, but it obviously was the right choice because it's by far the most popular thing I've done. And he just continues sadly to be a rising star in the GOP.
Yeah. Well, and on the topic of Dan Bongino, I mean, so I was working at Media Matters, which is this progressive media watchdog group, so we had people there who would do nothing except watch NRA TV all day. Which, awful. I mean, and Dan Bongino came from NRA TV before he went to Fox News and the whole... We just mocked him mercilessly and he blocked a bunch of us on Twitter but then he would be like, "Oh, so and so blocked me." It's like no, you blocked us.
But yeah, there's always been something that's funny about his character because he's kind of dumb. There was one time where he was talking about making lemonade, but he had these lemons-
Whole lemons, yeah.
... weren't peeled.
He put it in a blender. It's like, "What the f*ck are you doing, man?”
But yeah. So I thought that was a hilarious sort of addition. Yeah. It's kind of a very sort of niche reference, which kind of makes it better, you know?
Right. Yeah. I think that's how it was received. And sadly, it's becoming less niche just because he's climbing the ranks at Fox News now it seems, but yeah. So I kind of started with that and I think the next, I don't know if it was the next one, but one of the next popular ones I did was the Spirit Halloween theme and again, that was just something like I had noticed Spirit Halloween was opening up as everything else was shutting down. And it was just something that was kind of stuck in my brain. And I made that theme really quickly again. And I did that turn towards the end with Jeff Bezos and it wasn't until I was editing it, I realized like, "Oh, I have this picture of this bald, creepy mannequin that kind of looks like Jeff Bezos."
And oh, the man in the stairs also kind of looks like Jeff Bezos. And it's like, I'm connecting all these dots on the fly and I'm not thinking it through whatsoever. And luckily it's kind of unfolded in a way that's captivated people up until this point and I just continue to build on it. The really tricky part is not writing something that becomes so convoluted that it's just total nonsense to anyone who's listening for the first time. I really try to find something that is like... I think Joe Biden's inauguration was a good example of like, "Okay, if you've been following me on Twitter, you know why I look like I've been badly beaten, but you don't need to know that to enjoy this song."
Like that and I'll squeeze in a couple of lines to keep the story going, but I don't want to make it a full song about how Mel beat my ass and I'm running from a mobster called Big Pizza and whatever else. I like to just kind of sneak those things in when I can. But yeah, it becomes challenging as the story gets deeper and more complicated.
Have to start mapping it out.
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly.
So what are you working on these days? Any projects or anything?
Well, I am actually, I don't know how long this will last, but my wife just went back to work, we have a four-month-old daughter and three days a week, I am staying at home with her and I'm having to squeeze all productivity into Tuesday-Thursday while my mom and her mom watch the baby. And so far, it's kind of worked out. I had three weeks in a row where I was able to write a full song and post it on Thursday. I think I did the School Board Meeting song and then the Brendan Fraser song and then the Ernest P. Worrell song. I had a three-week run, I think. And it's funny because I think having these consolidated amounts of time forces me to be super productive. Whereas, over the span of a week, I just kind of twiddle my thumbs and wait for inspiration. But I work so much better under pressure and under deadlines and all of those things.
But anyways, on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I'm trying to keep developing the Songs on the Computer saga. I think I'll have another collection of songs I'm going to release in a couple of months. I have some freelance work that I've been doing for Netflix that should be coming out pretty soon for their socials, like promotional work. My producer at Super Deluxe, when they shut down, he moved to Netflix and that's kind of how I formed that relationship there which was... Yeah, it's been awesome. Which by the way, I just wanted to say this quickly, since you mentioned it, my producer, Jason, who is also @Seinfeld2000 on Twitter.
Oh, okay. Yeah.
Yeah. He was my producer at Super Deluxe. I've told this story in pretty much every interview I've done, so not to bore you if you've heard it, but basically, I did an unsolicited theme song for Tim Heidecker and Vic Berger's election specials that Super Deluxe was producing and then that kind of got the relationship started at Super Deluxe. And I basically told them like, "Hey, I'm attempting to make some kind of a career in music and if you guys ever need music, let me know." And that got a conversation going with me and Jason and he eventually pitched the emo Trump concept.
So I do got to give him credit in that department and that he was like, "Hey, Trump's tweets have been, especially emo this afternoon. Do you think you could make it like an early 2000s emo pop-punk song?" And I had a Tom Delonge Fender Stratocaster, that was like one of my first guitars and like-
Yeah. Nice. Yeah. Yeah. I hadn't touched it in like 15 years probably and I dusted it off and recorded that song so fast. I remember it just felt like this is my calling. Like everything has been building to this moment and that's what set off that whole path in Super Deluxe.
Yeah. It's like, "Bring me the seafoam green guitar-”
Yeah. Yeah. Exactly.
“... with one pickup."
Yeah. Yeah. No, it's so funny. I thought that was so punk rock at the time and now it's like-
Really it's just like, "Oh man, you can't do a lot with this, can you?"
You can't do anything! Yeah.
But cool. Yeah. Is there anything I've missed? Anything you'd like to make sure I put here or tell people? Or-
Yeah, I don't know. I'm sure there are things that I'm forgetting about. Obviously I'll be in Chicago and April.
We're going to be in there October 8th and 9th, which is this weekend. I don't know when this comes out, but yeah, we had to reschedule due to COVID for the 22nd and 23rd, the 23rd I believe is sold out. But the 22nd has a lot of tickets left.
I mean, that's pretty... Because it's at Lincoln Hall now, right?
Yeah, yeah. It is. Yeah.
I mean, that's like a decent-sized venue too, if you're selling out that's good.
It's really exciting. Yeah. I mean, we had two nights at Schubas and we sold out both, which was just amazing because before the pandemic we couldn't even sell out our hometown.
And it's like to go to another city and sell out two nights in a row was just mind-blowing and then they move us to the bigger venue and we sell out there and then they want to add a second show and it's like, we kind of feel like we could be flying a little too close to the sun here, but we're definitely down to give it a try. And we've definitely, we've sold a decent amount of tickets for that Friday night and we have months until it's-
We haven't even really promoted it that much. The first two shows sold out within hours of announcing them. So we're hoping to do more shows next year. I did just launch a Patreon, which has been fun. It's just a place for me to dump all the stuff where people are interested in not just the character of sweaty Nick Lutsko and they want to know how I do what I do. And so that's been a cool little community I started growing. I think I posted it or yeah, like less than a week ago and it's had a pretty good start. I'm enjoying that.
Yeah. That's how I really like seeing Patreon being used. Like, "Oh, here's this, you want cool behind the scenes? You want cool, raw? This is just me and my process kind of thing.'.
Or, "Just writing things, straightforward." Tim Kasher, who's in the band Cursive and The Good Life — he has a Patreon where he's just like, "Here's an alternate take of a song I recorded 15 years ago." And it's just like-
Oh, cool. Yeah. I love that stuff.
... this is the best.
Yeah. Yeah. Yeah. I feel like there's a lot of different ways to use Patreon, some people just use it as a virtual tip jar for people that appreciate the work that they do continuously and then other people turn it into an enterprise where it's like, "Okay, if you want to see anything I do, you got to come in both." I'm trying to figure out like where this thing is going to to live. But I think it's going to be more behind-the-scenes stuff and we're actually doing... I hope I'm technologically competent enough to pull this off, but we're just going to do a Zoom hangout where I play some songs because the, like I said, the Chicago songs shows would've been this weekend. So it's just a way to, I don't know, give those fans who were looking forward to come to see us this weekend to hang out and hear some songs.
Cool. Well, that's great. Thanks so much for coming by, Nick.
Yeah, definitely. It was a lot of fun.